Sunday, August 12, 2018

Senates against the people: the Argentine example

The rejection by the Senate of Argentina of an abortion bill commanding much popular support generated news in recent days, and much criticism of the old white male senators and of the Roman Catholic hierarchy who combined to impose their will on the population, and on women, once again.

But it's worth noting the role of upper houses. Argentina, like the United States, has a powerful upper house, the Senate, in which each province has equal representation. It's the American model: Americans tend not to make much of the undemocratic characteristics of an upper house in which a cluster of small states (just 17% of the American population, in the US case, fewer in Argentina) can muster a majority of votes.

Argentina is said to have the most mal-apportioned upper house in the world, though it differs only in degree from the American one. Argentina has 24 provinces and federal territories, each with 3 senators. Buenos Aires City, Buenos Aires Province, and one other, with just 9 senators between them, have fully half the Argentine population. Senators from the small rural provinces provided the margin of victory for the anti-abortion cause. In other words, the clear will of the people and of the representative lower house was rather easily dismissed by an array of senators representing a minority of the national population.

Doug Ford should be so lucky.

This example shows again the wisdom of the Canadian constitution-makers who understood that upper houses are always designed to be an elite bulwark against the representative lower or common house. They ensured that the upper house in Canada would always be weak by making it appointive and not elective. The Supreme Court of Canada's decision in the 2015 Senate reference question showed some understanding of that wisdom. The idea has always eluded most of our political scientists and political commentators, alas

The only other place you are likely to read that argument is my 1867: How the Fathers Made a Deal or my Three Weeks in Quebec City: The Meeting that Made Canada. Call me Cassandra.
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